Hong Kong, like Singapore, is a small country. They’ve got a big noisy neighbour and at times can get lost in the world of elite football due to their size – just like us.
This past week’s double header of friendlies for our Lionesses against Hong Kong showed that there is a gulf in experience. With an aggregate score of 0-5, we struggled to cope at times. Our Women’s game is on the up without a doubt, with the number of players plying their trades overseas increasing consistently as well as an increased devotion of resources locally. Nonetheless, these friendlies will have served as a reminder of the level we will be up against come next month’s AFF Women’s Championship in the Philippines.
On the Men’s front, we can also look to Hong Kong Football’s recent successes as motivation going forward. Having qualified for the AFC Cup Finals for the first time since 1968 in addition to their strongest club side; Kitchee SC qualifying for the AFC Champions League (ACL) Round of 16, Hong Kong Football is on the up despite the tumultuous 2022 that they’ve had. COVID restrictions have limited their training almost entirely, with the Men’s and Women’s team resorting exclusively to training camps to prepare for fixtures, missing out on league action due to its abandonment earlier in the year.
In Bishkek, our Lions put in respectable and exciting displays under new Coach Takayuki Nishigaya, ultimately falling short of qualifying. Meanwhile our premier club side Lion City Sailors, also had a good run in their first ever ACL Group Stage outing. We should look at Hong Kong, a fellow City-Country, as inspiration to go on and achieve more. Having experienced their footballing set-up as well as ours, I can name an endless number of parallels. With public pitches being controlled by Government organisations, a small number of teams in their professional leagues and a limited pool of players to choose from just off the top of my head.
The biggest and most noticeable parallel however is the dominance of a single side domestically, Kitchee and their Singaporean equivalents LCS. Kitchee dominates Hong Kong Football on almost every level, being the only team in the country with their own private training facility. This allows them to breed elite players for their first-team without the worries of public pitch-bookings and other logistics disrupting training. Sailors are on the same track, with their own recently built training facility acting as the hub for them to develop future talents for their Men’s and Women’s teams. The matter of National-Service is without a doubt a disruption for the men’s game here, and is a big difference between the two-countries, however there is no doubt LCS’ investments and ambitions will bear fruit for Singapore Football just like Kitchee has done for Hong Kong.
One player who has seen the benefits of Kitchee’s notable academy system is Hong Kong’s No.9 Matthew Elliot Orr, who first started with them when he was 8 years of age. More on that in a future article (stay tuned for that). Born and raised in Hong Kong, Matthew’s father is from New Zealand but carries immense pride in Hong Kong Football’s historic achievements this past month.
“We had no expectations on us given the COVID situation in Hong Kong on top of the fact that we hadn’t qualified in so long. We had a favourable draw, but we just went out there and gave it our all and it feels amazing to do something special for the people of Hong Kong. Seeing Hong Kong in the same list as Asian powerhouses is surreal.”
As Matt mentioned, Hong Kong’s preparation leading up to the tournament due to the lock-down that was enforced at the time was far from ideal. They had abandoned their league a few months into the year leaving the players not involved in the ACL with Kitchee without competitive minutes under their belt for a few months. On top of this, they also had new coach Jørn Andersen at the helm well as a number of players based in China who weren’t able to link-up with the squad. The odds were stacked against them, but they prevailed.
“In the past we’ve relied quite heavily on our localised players, but in this campaign the local and younger lads stepped up and were brilliant. We went out there against Afghanistan and played some amazing football and were up 2-0 in the first-half. We were full of confidence going into the Cambodia game and sort of brushed them aside. We knew we had qualified before the final game against India so honestly our heads weren’t even in the right place, we were just too excited.”
The concept of bringing in young, hungry players is becoming more prevalent as the demands of modern football shift towards a more aggressive, pressing style of play. Fans of our Lions have also started to raise the need for Singapore to start seasoning younger players and bringing them into the national team fold. With an ageing squad, there is a need for new blood and it is something that we’ve begun to see addressed with the recent first-time call-ups for a number of younger players.
Lionesses’ head coach Stephen Ng has been very outspoken about the importance he places on promoting young players into the senior set-up, something we saw in the two-recent friendlies against Hong Kong. Although we were a cut below Hong Kong, given that the Lionesses are over 50 places lower in the FIFA rankings, the experience can still be looked at in a positive light going into next month’s AFF Championships.
Explaining his emphasis on bringing through youth after our Lionesses’ first match against Hong Kong, he said “It is good for their development and good for us as a national team because we want more exposure and we want more players to have this experience playing at this intensity.”
Our Lionesses captured the hearts of many at the 31st SEA Games in May, and hopefully that support and the experiences they have gained since can carry over and propel them to a strong showing in the Philippines. With more players plying their trade overseas and increased efforts to better the Women’s game here, results are bound to come.